Review: Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect

When some people hear the word “intellect,” they may think of cold, stuffy academia. However, what I love most about Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect is the robust treatment of the entire man. Not only mind, but heart. Not only thought, but affection (88-93, 96). McGrath says, “The surest way of enhancing the identity, coherence and cohesion of a community is to help it see what it loves more clearly, and thence to love it more clearly . . . . We cannot allow Christ to reign in our hearts if he does not also guide our thinking” (20-21). As McGrath explores the passionate intellect, he does so with an eye to “the Christian vision of God in all its fullness and wonder” (22)—that vision includes our affections.

The bones of the book is contextualized to the threat of new atheism, and is fleshed out within “the Christian vision of God” (22) for the maturation of the saints. One thread through out is humility. As we approach God, we confess he is near us, but also above us and beyond us. We can understand what he has revealed, but we often confess that God is mystery (26-30, 49-50). Also, the pursuit of passionate intellect is a humble pursuit. McGrath says, “The study of theology prevents endless reinvention of the wheel on the part of those who recognize the need to engage a situation or issue, but are unaware that the church has already developed the tools needed to cope with them” (37).

Also, we need people like McGrath who love science and faith to show that the two are not at odds. “The scientific method, when properly applied, is no enemy of faith. The problems begin when enthusiastic atheists start smuggling in their own presuppositions, hoping nobody will notice, or when enthusiastic Christians start believing that science challenges core beliefs or essential ways of reading the Bible and circle their wagons defensively” (118). McGrath shows that defensive maneuvers to defeat science are not needed. Science and faith are friends.

My favorite chapters were “3 The Gospel and Transformation of Reality: George Herbert’s ‘Elixir’,” “8 Religious and Scientific Faith: The Case of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species,” and “9 Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution.” Chapter 3 on Herbert demonstrates beautifully how intellect and affection go hand in hand. Herbert plumed the depths of theology and it bled into his poetry. “Theology is an activity of the imagination as much as of reason” (46). Chapters eight and nine are important for encouraging Christians to not fear or reject science. We must embrace it. And we also must be carefully to not mistake science for Christian doctrine. McGrath says, “Let’s be clear about this: Augustine isn’t playing at being a scientist. Nor is he confusing science and theology. Augustine is not contradicting a scientific account of origins; rather, he is setting it within a theological scaffolding” (145).

Although the brightness of new atheism may be dimming with the passing of Christopher Hitchens and with the frequent social media foot-to-mouth disease of Richard Dawkins, the importance of pursuing a passionate intellect within a well rounded accounting of the Christian faith is no less important. Alister McGrath serves the church well in this regard.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the assistant editor at CBMW Men’s Channel. He regularly writes for a variety of publications. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.